The best ways to keep in touch with home while you’re abroad


Here is every parent’s nightmare: Your child is going off to study abroad. As unsettling as that might be, the real nightmare comes when you get your first cellphone bill and realize you forgot to address the issue of staying in touch when your child is in a foreign land.

In truth, it’s not just kids; it’s anyone who travels with a smartphone and these days, that’s just about everyone. Student or senior citizen, you need to address communication needs well before take-off.

Here’s your step-by-step guide:

Step 1

Find out whether the cellphone that will be traveling abroad can be unlocked — that is, untethered from your carrier. Generally, if your phone is paid for, it can be unlocked so skip ahead to Step 2.


If you still owe money on it, it can be unlocked but you must pay off the contract. If you choose to pay it off, go to Step 2.

If you choose not to pay it off, go to Step 3. Pour yourself some coffee and wait for the other readers to catch up.

Step 2

An unlocked phone means you are no longer in an exclusive relationship with your carrier and you can start dating other carriers.

That means your next move, as a parent or as a student, is to consider buying a SIM card for the area or country being visited.

You’ll get a local number, which is helpful if you’re staying awhile. Depending on the plan you choose, you’ll have data and all the perks of your phone at home.

But let’s say you like your carrier. You don’t want to date other carriers. Go to Step 3.

Step 3

Welcome back, everyone. You have decided not to break up with your carrier, so you’re keeping your phone locked. Or the financial disincentives mean you must stick with the carrier. In either case, you must protect yourself financially,


You have two options here. If you choose Option A — sticking with your carrier, for whatever reason — go to Step 4, Option A.

If you choose Option B, you could move your phone service elsewhere, in which case you should go to Step 4, Option B.

Step 4, Option A

If you’re keeping your phone and it’s locked, you should consider an international calling plan from your carrier that offers talk time and data, which is often more important than talk time. Who uses a phone to talk anymore?

Keep in mind that you can burn through a lot of data quickly, so choose a plan that offers the most data for the least money.

If this is what you choose to do, you can now skip to the section titled Keeping Your Costs Down.

Step 4, Option B

You know how people sometimes buy an old beater truck just because they hate mucking up their car when they’re hauling trash or moving stuff or whatever scuffs the inside of your sedan?


Say hello to the concept of a beater phone.

You can go to Amazon, EBay or pretty much any other phone-selling site and buy an unlocked phone.

It may not be quite as nice as the phone you have, but the fact that it’s not new means it won’t cost you the family fortune. If this is what you choose, see Step 2 about buying a local SIM.

Also, see our video above about replacing a SIM card. Then rejoin us at the saving money category, because this applies no matter what you’re doing.

Keeping your costs down

Hello again, callers. Everything that’s been suggested so far comes at a price, so here’s the part where you can help keep your costs down, no matter which phone option you choose.

In the Aug. 28 “On the Spot” column, based on a reader request for help managing her daughter’s finances while the young woman studies abroad, experts from personal finance sites gave us some money-saving tips.

Kimberly Palmer, a credit card and banking expert for, and Jennifer McDermott, a consumer advocate for, endorsed Skype and Whats App, as did colleagues in the travel communications business.


Here’s what almost everyone agreed on:

Skype. You don’t have to have a smartphone to use Skype, although you can call using Skype from a smartphone. But you also call from a laptop, a tablet, even an iPod if it has Wi-Fi and you have the app or a way to log in to

If your student has Skype and you have Skype, the cost of a call is free when you Skype to Skype. The only thing you may need is headphones or earphones.

If you originate the call and the callee isn’t using Skype, the cost to you is usually 2 or 3 cents a minute, more if you’re calling a cellphone.

Wi-Fi is imperative in either case. In my experience in calling home from all over the world, wobbly Wi-Fi means the call can be a little shaky, but usually the quality is good to excellent.

You also can video Skype, which is useful when your student wants to introduce a new love interest or show off that cool new tattoo. (Just remember that your student can hear you gasp.)

WhatsApp. It began life as a messaging app but has grown to include voice and video calling.


Supporters are enthusiastic, including Kim Grant, editorial director of Bindu Trips, a new service that helps you plan and execute itineraries.

Grant is working with more than 150 journalists worldwide, “most of whom are on the road 75 plus days a year,” she said in an email.

“The vast majority of us use WhatsApp to stay in touch with work, family and friends,” she said. “It’s free, works through Wi-Fi, doesn’t drop calls, [is] easy to download and ubiquitous among our extensive cohorts.”

An added feature, said Albert Stumm, a travel writer based in Barcelona, Spain, is that it “uses very little data for its voice call function, so I never worry about using it in my cellular network’s plan either.”

And, parents, here’s an important consideration: “It’s also the app that young people use almost universally throughout Europe to send text messages,” he said in an email.

►Other thumbs up went to Apple’s Facetime (although it takes some bandwidth) and Facebook Messenger; both offer voice and video.


►Then there’s MagicJack, free as a a phone app but not by PC.

This was a new one for me, but John Lampl, formerly in media relations for British Airways, uses the MagicJack app on his smartphone.

It works well, he said, if there’s reliable Wi-Fi. He has called L.A. from Italy, France, India, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, Russia, Japan and Colombia, he said in an email, with no problem and no charge.

It’s important to him to connect with family, in this case a daily chat with his 99-year-old mother.

See, kids? No matter how old you are, checking in with Mom is always the right thing to do.

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